About five years ago I fell in love with a single dad of three. We met on OKCupid and one of his first messages to me asked if I was okay with the fact he had three kids who lived with him.
I told him that kids were a bonus to me, but baby mamas on the other hand could be a dealbreaker. While it has been worth it, it was a clairvoyant moment on my part, because navigating stuff with his ex has been by far the most stressful part of our relationship.
Luckily my husband and I are on the same page about her: she is a horrible parent and has hurt our kids tremendously by her behavior. She had visitation every other weekend, from Friday evening to Sunday night, but chose to only take them Saturday late morning to Sunday afternoon. She would pick them up late, and drop them off early. During the little bit of time they were at her house she would shut them into a room with computers and video games and make them stay in there as she invited friends over and drank.
Sometimes they would drunkenly invite the kids to play games with them, but that was generally the most contact they had with her over the weekend. Much of this we are only finding out now since her rule was, “What happens at Mommy’s house, stays at Mommy’s house.”
Many weekends she cancelled because she had parties to go to or would call the kids to let them know that she would be several hours late because she was hungover. She told the oldest that she would only go to the school play that the oldest was in if “she had a solo” (only once in many years did she ever come to a school concert or other event). She made it clear to the kids that they were a burden to her and married a guy who "jokingly" referred to the kids as "the assholes."
I could go on for hours (and my husband and I do – privately).
During this time my husband and I tried really hard not to say anything bad about her to them -- in keeping with the conventional wisdom on this topic -- but it was difficult. (And once in a while things did slip out. But generally I was able to keep my mouth shut. My husband way less so, but he also was trying).
About a year ago, the ex decided to move across the country for "warmer weather." As she told the oldest (12 at the time): "I'm just not in a place to be a mom right now."
At that point, we knew we had to talk to them to let them know that nothing about her treatment of them was their fault. They knew better than anyone that she was abandoning them. We told them that she was messed up and had issues, and that there is nothing that they could have done (or not done) to change this.
I had seen other families hide this kind of neglect by following the conventional wisdom to keep it secret, and seen the kids feel like it was their fault that one of their parents was cold or neglectful. No matter what, we want our kids to know that all of this is her problem and that she is the one missing out. (We also have them in preemptive therapy. They seem fine now, but this isn't something one really gets over.)
Their feelings and pain about this are inevitable. Believing that their mother's behavior is their fault, or they could have changed things, is not. The only way to avoid that is to place the blame where it belongs -- squarely on the shoulders of a woman who should never have become a mother in the first place because it's not a responsibility you can shrug off, like bringing the puppy back to the shelter because you don't want it anymore (which she has also done, in fact).
Theoretically, I could have let my husband do all the dirty work and not said anything myself, but that’s now how we do things here. I know that other stepfamilies have different approaches and that is great, but this is what has worked for us. Parenting and living with the kids for several years (many of that when I was the at-home caregiver), we are a unit and any big conversations like this involve all of us. They are as much my children as my biological child -- and there would have been plenty of room for their biological mother too, if she wanted it.
One of the biggest parts of parenting is teaching your kids what “normal” is, generally through role modeling. To a large extent, parents create their children’s reality. This is why children who grow up in chaotic environments are more likely to replicate those environments as adults. It is important to me and my husband that our children learn that they are not inconveniences to the adults around them, and that anyone who treats them as such is the problem, not them.
We want them to know that it is not okay to shut your children in a small room so you can get drunk with your friends, even though you only have your kids 26 nights a year. I have also made sure to let them know that they have a maternal figure who IS in a place to be a mom right now.
However, I have been very careful to make it clear that I am in no way trying to replace their mother, and I have always followed their lead. They have made it clear that they consider me their “real mom” since I am the one who is here with them all the time, and has been for awhile, but that was something they came up with themselves. Even when we criticize their mom, we make it clear that she is their mom and we know that they love her and that is okay.
It pains me so much that there was a mother-shaped hole to fill when I met my husband and kids, but I am so grateful to have the relationships I have with them. I know I can never fill that hole completely, and there will always be pain and disappointment involved in their relationships with her.
Parenting is always a crapshoot, but I don't think the facade that their mother is "fine" is useful to anyone. It’s better to validate their anger and feelings of abandonment by being honest about the fact that their mother doesn’t have the ability to treat them in a way that they deserve to be treated.